VC Lake Battle, 15 September 1970, Another Perspective

by Bill Rutledge

Several Seawolves have provided input to prior articles, published and unpublished, about this difficult day in the history of the Seawolves. Those articles do an excellent job outlining the mission and discussing many critical issues the Seawolves faced on that and the following day. I and others would like to add to the previous recorded history of the battle by giving tribute to those who were not identified in those articles, including the the heroic efforts by the Army medevac helicopter Pilot, Copilot and Crew chief, and to clear up some small details. The thoughts below should not be read in isolation but in conjuction with the other articles on the VC Lake battle.

There were many participants that were not mentioned in the VC Lake Incident narrative. We were there that day as well. My information comes from documents, first hand knowledge and from discussions with some of those involved, including pilots, gunners and the Crew Chief from the Army Medevac bird, Dust Off 86, who needed our help and really got this started when the Army wouldn’t cover them. A full and accurate history continues to be difficult. Some of the gunners and pilots could not be reached. In addition, records, documents, and citations regarding Det Six were probably lost in the fire and destroyed when their base at Song Ong Doc was overrun a month later. I apologize if I leave anything or anyone out for lack of documentation.

During the battle, we had 4 Seawolf Gunships on station, one joined Fire Team with a bird each from Det One (aircraft 313- Shot Down) and Det Three (aircraft 306- heavy battle damage) and a Fire Team from Det 6 (aircraft 312- Shot Down) and (aircraft 3??- heavy Battle damage). We were there to provide cover for an Army Medevac (Dust Off 86-Heavy Battle Damage) as it attempted to rescue casualties from friendly ARVN ground forces. Joining the battle was a Sealords bird (aircraft 03- Heavy Battle Damage) and from other articles written two VAL4 (0V-10 fixed wing Broncos – one with Battle damage). Two Army Cobras (Crusaders) were also involved (one Crusader was shot down) I saw none of these aircraft on scene, but I was a little busy at the time.

Everyone came under intense small arms and 50/51 Caliber anti-aircraft fire as soon as they were on station. As we all learned later, it was a helicopter trap. Det Six aircraft 3?? with LT. Spiedel as pilot, LT. Pearson Copilot, gunners were PO1 (Pappy) Valdespino and PO Hank Seemann. This bird suffered a 50 cal tracer round to the tail rotor control tube under the pilots seat and hits in the tail rotor gear box requiring them to leave the battle scene and do a slide on landing at Ca Mau. Aircraft 312, with LTJG William Pederson (KIA), ADJ3 Jose Ramos (KIA), LTJG Ford and AMS3 Jim Plona aboard was shot down almost immediately. The Det One bird (313) with LTJG Lambert, LTJG Lagow, Gunner AMS1 Bill White, and Crew chief AO2 Dave Smale aboard, were flying to Det six’s 312 port side. Smale was flying the starboard 50 and watched in horror as 312 was hit and began to plunge toward the earth. Evidence indicates 312 was autorotating toward a controlled crash but to Smale they appeared to fall like a rock. Aircraft 312 hit hard and skidded into a dike line in a crumpled wreck.

Det One’s 313 continued to provide coverage for Dustoff 86 and came back around to provide protective cover for their downed shipmates. Under heavy fire, 313 was hit, suffered engine failure and began to autorotate toward the ground. LTJG Lambert had the presence of mind and skill to direct his gunship toward the relative safety of VC Lake. Water crashes can be deadly and the choice seemed better, compared to the adjacent land where the enemy were well fortified. To the crew’s suprise, the lake was shallower than expected at 4 feet and every one got out quickly without injury. Shortly after, under continuing fire, Dustoff 86 came to extract the Det One crew. Aboard Dustoff 86 were 1st LT Ledford, WO1 Miller, an Army SP4 Medic, a ARVN SGT Medic/Interpeter and the Crew chief SP4 Michael Mitchell.

Smale had retrieved his 50 cal and, in an effort to save it from the enemy, climbed to the top of the downed Det One gunship, hoping to load the 50 onto Dustoff 86 during extraction. With the Dustoff only a few feet from Smale, enemy ground fire intensified and the Dustoff aborted the evac. As instructed from the Dustoff, Smale abandoned the 50 and jumped into the greater safety of the lake. Dustoff 86 came back around and successfully extracted the Det One crew. Smale told me he always regretted not removing the butt plate from the 50 so the VC could not use it in the future.

The Dustoff, now with nine souls aboard, paused at altitude only long enough for 1st LT. Ledford to get his bearings before he dove fearlessly back into the intensity of fire to attempt a rescue of any Det Six 312 survivors (Smale described Ledford as having ice in his veins operating with deadly calm and professionalism). The Dustoff Crew Chief, Mitchell, with total disregard for his personal safety, was the first to reach the downed bird, LTJG Lagow was hot on his heels to aide in the rescue. THE DUSTOFF MEDICS REFUSED TO LEAVE THE DUSTOFF TO HELP. Smale, White, and LTJG Lambert remained with the Dustoff, laying down a barrage of return fire as the relatively defenseless Dustoff continued to receive intense ground fire and exploding mortar rounds which were coming closer as they zeroed in. To hasten the rescue, Smale exited the Dustoff and made his way through waist deep water to the downed crew to assist Mitchell and Lagow with the rescue of LTJG Ford and AMS3 Plona, both seriously wounded. The rescuers worked under heavy fire to successfully extract both wounded men from the wreck and bring them back to the Dustoff. By all appearances LTJG Pederson and ADJ3 Ramos were dead.

Now, with 11 people aboard, under continuing ground fire and a tree line too close for take off comfort given the heavy load, LT Ledford managed to successfully extract from the area with a lot of prayers helping from the back. Ford and Plona had an anguished, painful trip back to base were they were given medical attention and subsequently air lifted back stateside for a very long convalescence. While all other survivors of this intense episode may have difficult reminders of the day’s events, Ford and Plona are reminded daily by their physical limitations, and the families of Bill Pederson and Joe Ramos have had to contend with their heroes ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The heroic account of the Det 3 Gunship(306), well documented in other articles, was crewed by LTJG Baratko, LT Padon, Gunner AT2 Ray Winters and Gunner/Crew chief AMSAN Henry Livingstone. It is documented that this bird was badly shot up and leaking fuel. Not adequately noted was the impact of the fuel leakage. The fuel was being sucked up into the bird by the rotor wash making it prohibitive for the gunners to return fire. One spark and they would have erupted into a ball of flames. Nonetheless, being the only gunship left flying and under heavy fire continued making low passes drawing the fire away from medivac bird as it rescued the Det 6 survivors. Nothing more could be asked of an aircrew than what this Det 3 gunship crew contributed to the rescue(above and beyond the call).

The Sealords bird,(03) who’s activities are also well documented in other articles, volunteered to go in with no gunship cover and try and rescue the remaining Det Six crew. The bird was manned by Pilot LT Beltz, Copilot LTJG Farr, Sealords Crewman AO1 Harvey and I was the Gunner. LT Beltz asked if we wanted to go in and get our guys and all said yes.

We could see Army birds in the distance but no one would come and cover us so we made a low pass taking heavy fire and hits. I was on the right door and the only gunner aboard, and with my free 60 and 2000 rounds, I laced the tree lines going in and out. I could see the enemy firing at us, and only a few yards away from their position, the friendlies were standing waving at us. This also verified by others. Back to altitude, LT Beltz tried again to get us some cover. Other articles state that two Crusader Cobras came, but I never saw them. In an article written by one of the Crusader pilots, he states that he was at Ca Mau when a bird came in with a body hanging from it, which must have been us.

Again we went in, and I fired until we came into a hover. I was the only crewman who jumped from the bird into the chest deep water and struggled (not waded) to the down Det Six wreck. I had left my M-60 on the deck of the Sealord and told Harvey not to use it for I didn’t know if he was qualified or not. The water was churning from enemy rounds like throwing hands full of gravel into a pond. I had taken one of the M-16s from the bird and was firing at heads popping up over the dike line and when it was empty I threw it away.

When I reached the wreck, I saw LT Pederson and checked him and found he was dead and too entangled in the wreckage and I couldn’t get him. Ramos was in the water. I thought he was still alive, but when I checked, he was gone. At this time I tried to wave the Sealords to go around, for it was taking many hits and I wanted a ride home. I started to pull Joe Ramos away from the bird but he had a long gunners belt on and was still attached to the helo so I climbed back in, unhooked him and again checked Mr. Pederson.

I still couldn’t get him, so I jumped back into the water and pulled Petty Officer Ramos back toward the still hovering Sealord. I had Ramos right up against me and felt something thud into him and something hit me below the waterline knocking me down, I got back up and made it to the bird and Harvey jumped out and tried to help me get Joe in the Sealord, but we couldn’t lift him so I tied him to the skid and Harvey had to help me in. As we took off, taking more hits I was so exhausted I couldn’t lift the M-60 so I just fired it where it lay. At this time (I later heard), an Army Cobra gunship was shot down behind us and was immediately rescued. The next day, long respected former Det One Petty Officer in Charge, Gunner AMS1 Hicks and other Seawolves and SEALS helped retrieve LTJG Pederson.(312)

Virtually everyone involved that day performed with professionalism and distinction. Below, documents the awards pertaining to the battle. Also evident is the lack of appropriate awards, insufficient awards (or over awards) for actions performed. NOTE. the highest award given to the nine Seawolf Gunners involved in the air to ground battle that day were two Single Action Air Medals, downgraded from Silver Stars.

DET 6 Seawolf # (312)-Shot down and crashed
LTJG Pederson (KIA) Not on awards list
LTJG Ford, (Injured) Not on awards list
ADJ3 Ramos (KIA) Not on awards list, received Purple Heart (Medical Records)
AMS3 Plona (Injured) Not on awards list, received, Purple Heart (Medical Records)
DET 6 Seawolf # (3??) heavy battle damage, had to leave the scene
LT. Speidel Single Action Air Medal
LT. Pearson Single Action Air Medal
PO1 George Valdespino Not on awards list
PO? Hank Seemann Not on awards list
DET 3 Seawolf #(306) Heavy battle damage, Only Gunship still flying
LTJG Baratko Recommended for Medal Of Honor, received Navy Cross
LT Padon Recommended Navy Cross, received ??
AMSAN Livingstone Recommended Silver Star, received Single Action Air Medal
* AT2 Winters Recommended Silver Star, received Single Action Air Medal
DET 1 Seawolf # (313) Shot down in Lake, aided in rescue of Plona, Ford
LTJG Lambert Received Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon (Ground Action)
LTJG Lagow Received Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon (Ground Action)
AMS1 White Received Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon (Ground Action)
AO2 Smale Received Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon (Ground Action)
SEALORDS # (03) Heavy battle damage, Retrieved Petty Officer Ramos
LTJG Beltz Recommended for Navy Cross, Received Silver Star
LTJG Farr Received Distinguished Flying Cross
AO1 Harvey Received Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon
AE1 Rutledge Received Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon (Ground Action)
DUST OFF #(86) Battle damage, Rescued 6 Seawolf Crewmen
1ST LT LEDFORD Recommended Navy Cross, Received Navy Cross
WO1 Miller Recommended Silver Star, Received Silver Star
SP4 Mitchell Recommended Silver Star, Received Silver Star
SP4 Saar (Medic) (refused to leave the bird) Received Silver Star
SGT. Nguyen(ARVN Medic/ Interp) (refused to leave bird) Received Silver Star.

* Petty Officer Winters was (KIA) 16 days later on 3 Oct at Ca Mau